Stairs are a dominant feature of most homes, so getting the design right is important. A beautiful staircase can make a fantastic centrepiece to impress your guests, as well as serving a practical purpose.
But looks are only part of the story – safety is another vital issue. Many older staircases fall short of modern standards, so replacing your stair banisters can help bring your home up to scratch. Here are a few decisions you will need to make:
Most household staircases are manufactured from wood, but metal and glass are becoming more popular. Timber will probably still be part of your stairs, at least as far as the treads and supporting structure are concerned, but you may decide to combine wooden staircase components with glass panels or steel spindles (also known as balusters) for a more contemporary look.
Wood is a beautifully warm, versatile material that will suit any setting. It is ideal for a wide range of designs, including curved stairs, turned newels and different styles of handrail. Wooden stair spindles, in particular, can be readily worked into all sorts of decorative shapes – or left plain for a minimalist look.
Which timber is best? Pine, hemlock and sapele are worth considering if you're on a tight budget, especially if you are intending to paint or stain the staircase. At the other end of the scale, ash, walnut, southern yellow pine and oak stair parts offer premium looks and durability, but come at prices to match.
Metal stair balusters shaped to resemble wrought iron are extremely popular nowdays, with a wide choice of both traditional and contemporary designs on the market. Durable and decorative, they can easily be painted to match the rest of the decor if required. You can also get chrome or brushed nickel effect stair spindles for an ultra-modern feel.
Glass panels can look stunning on a banister rail, and are ideal for poorly lit spaces as they allow light to flow freely around the room. They can be combined with wood or metal handrails and newels – and even glass treads, for anyone keen to add a touch of contemporary glamor.
Which handrail design?
There are two main types of handrail system: post-to-post and over-the-post . The strongest, most popular and economic design is post-to-post. In this system, the handrail runs between the newels and is fitted into the sides of the newel posts with traditional mortise and tenon joints.
In an over-the-post configuration, also known as a continuous handrail system, the rail runs over the top of the newel posts, often ending in a decorative swirl called a volute. This design is more eye-catching and elaborate, but a little less sturdy than the post-to-post system. However, it can look stunning and is considered as a sign of quality by home buyers.
When revamping your stairs, you can take the opportunity to bring them up to date in terms of safety as well as style. The most important modern regulation, brought in to prevent small children becoming trapped, is that no gap anywhere on a staircase should be large enough for a 100mm sphere to pass through. This applies to every stair part, but the main thing to look out for when replacing the banisters is the amount of space between spindles. In order to comply with the 100mm rule, the distance between the spindles (or glass panels if applicable) must not exceed 99mm.
The measurement is taken from the smallest part of the baluster, so if you buy turned balusters you will probably need to order more of these than the square or stop-chamfered varieties. Staircase manufacturers will be able to help you calculate the number required to meet the regulations (usually two spindles per tread).
The rule also applies to the space between steps on open-tread stairs. If it is greater than 99mm, you'll need to install riser bars at the rear of each tread to reduce the size of the opening.
Choosing new stair banisters, or indeed a whole new staircase, can present an array of challenges, with potentially tricky decisions to be made about design, materials and costs. However, the process will also give you the opportunity to improve a key part of your home – and, of course, increase its overall value.